In November 2017, The New Yorker published a piece on photographer Josephine Sittenfeld’s series “Reunion,” which recreates college-era images of her friends when they meet back up at a reunion. The images are unflashy and direct, calling forth a haunting nostalgia for their former selves. Around the same time that November, I started taking advantage of CVS photo discounts and printing images from my iPhone 6 into 4x6 glossy stacks. Detailed in each batch are the glowing faces of my friends, perspectives of my room in varied light, summer greens of Massachusetts hikes and the denim blue of the Boston waterfront. I am not a photographer, and it shows, but I love having the product of my perspective as a stack I can hold in my hand.
Our daily interaction with photography has blown up astronomically in the past decade, both with the advent of high-quality cameras on smartphones and the omnipresence of image-sharing on social media. We can ask, then, whether the culture of digital photography in the context of social media changes the way we interact with it, in both viewing photographs and taking them. What are we looking at when we look at photos, and how are we looking differently through the lens? Does it alter what we choose to capture and how we capture?
Skeptics of social media express much concern surrounding the excess of photos, saying that the endless stream of small-scale images will make us pay less attention to detail. Will it let us become locked in easy tropes? Does it take the originality and nuance out of our interaction with photos? To me, there is no such evidence that a common approach to photography on social media will cheapen the art form across the board. Yes, photographers will certainly contend with new professional challenges, such as the frequency with which photos are reposted without credit and the simple fact that small phone and computer screens often hide the complexity of images. However, I still think photography as a fine art will remain unscathed running beside the proliferation of personal photographs online.
As long as photographers remain seriously devoted to the radical possibilities of their craft, and as long as the art world carves out spaces for in-depth attention to photography, it will persist. Social media remains a fun and small pastime, something I do not feel affects my ability to appreciate photography in a more serious context. Yet while social media won’t destroy the sanctity of photography as an art form, it’s endangering a subset of photography that we are much less precious about protecting: the everyday photography of our lives.
Social media has large ramifications in the way we capture photos, which in turn affects the way we view our experiences. We engage with images constantly, and overwhelmingly so, in the digital sphere, and it has democratized both photo-taking and social branding. Personal branding in 2019 is so ubiquitous that it no longer needs to be a grandiose act. One can share a simple dinner out with friends or a walk along the oceanside in the 30 seconds it takes to snap a photo and throw it on a platform. Our branding often manifests in the quiet, nearly universal act of sharing things that happen in your life — but doing so selectively. The readiness of camera use encourages a constant attention to presentation, and we swim past an ecosystem of screens, so much so that our lives start to reflect in them, and them in our lives.
Bo Burnham, the director of the 2018 film “Eighth Grade,” explained the psychology that underlies self-branding in an interview with Vox: “You watch other people in the room watch you watch them. You’re nostalgic for the experience as you’re in it, because you’re thinking of how it’ll be processed after the fact.” The visual cues we use to present the way we would like to be seen in photos increasingly seep out of the frame and into our consciousness, and we find ourselves looking for those same cues in our lives as they are unfolding.
As much as I do enjoy posting on Instagram, it would be a shame if capturing likeable images is the only way that we as a generation come to experience the process of taking photos. Personal photography will always include that element of self-reflecting and contextualizing, but there are ways to loosen that interaction from the literal curation of a digital identity. Documentation is a fascinating way to explore our movement through time and life phases, and it need not be bound to the pressures of presentation.
It is for this reason I make the case to print out photos, the ones you take yourself. There’s always an uncertainty in how the image will appear once printed; fuzziness emerges when a picture gets blown up in size, or the blue of the sky can significantly deepen. It is this uncertainty that frees the image from the anxieties of perception and instead re-centers what you see, how you existed and how it is processed through technology to create this object that you can now hold and keep. Physicality brings the image out of the transient flow of social media and crystallizes it for you alone.
A friend of mine was flipping through my most recent stack from the summer and came across a photo of me leaning under a tree with my eyes caught askance in the lens. She had seen it before in digital form, but the print stopped her — “I feel like I’m looking at a picture of someone’s mom from however many years ago, except it’s now,” she told me. It was the first time she had seen me as a person frozen in a time and place.
Removing our images from the digital stream is what can bring them to life. As concrete objects, tangible and unchanging, the printed image turns the dimensions of a moment back into the physical form, peering back at you like an old self disembodied.